Comment: Steve Braunias on the latest disaster at the National Library

What’s in the water at the National Library? Is it methylated spirits, or lysergic acid, or somesuch other derangement of the senses? After 12 months of rotten publicity and bitter backlash over its decision to try and dump over 600,000 New Zealand books at garage sales, the Library is embroiled in a new row which has authors and publishers in various states of shock, disbelief and anger.

The latest calumny is due to the Library’s decision to hand over the books to an online firm described as “internet pirates”.

A press release was sent out by the Library on July 13. It was headlined, “National Library signs historic agreement with Internet Archive.” All of its unwanted cargo of books, the release blathered, will be donated to Internet Archive, “so they can digitise and preserve them, ensuring future access for New Zealanders”.

Hurrah! But the release rather failed to mention that Internet Archive, based in San Francisco, is currently the subject of a major international lawsuit, accused of piracy.

The deal with Internet Archive came out of the blue to the New Zealand Publishers Association (Panz). The first it heard about it was from a story published in Scoop on July 8, written by Book Guardians Aotearoa (BGA), a lobby group formed to battle the Library’s consuming desire to get rid of 600,000 books. BGA, in turn, only learned of “the historic agreement” by placing an Official Information Act request.

Panz president Graeme Cosslett said, “We are stunned the National Library would partner with internet pirates that damage New Zealand literature on a daily basis. On the day of the National Library’s announcement, works by Janet Frame, Patricia Grace, Keri Hulme, Witi Ihimaera, Albert Wendt and many other leading authors were being illegally distributed by the Internet Archive.

“This partnership needs to cease. By partnering with the Internet Archive, New Zealand’s National Library is helping an organisation known for taking an author’s work, without their consent and giving it away for free. Piracy like that completely undermines the author’s ability to earn a living and write more books.

“Why should a pirate website that reports millions of dollars in revenue each year (investing nothing in New Zealand literature) benefit from this theft while our local writers and publishers lose out? And, most importantly, why is the National Library OK with this?”

Good question. Auckland author Dr Paula Morris, essentially in charge of everything to do with New Zealand literature, was also baffled. She told ReadingRoom, “I really don’t know what the National Library is up to, or why it made this decision without consulting anyone who has a clue. Four of my novels are available through Internet Archive, though they have made no rights payments and sought no permission. (One is published by Penguin NZ and three by Scholastic US.) I get worn out playing whack-a-mole with online pirates like this.”

Rachel Esson, the national librarian, wrote to Panz this week and offered various reassurances. Such as: “I have asked that authors be given the opportunity to opt-out…Authors can request that specific items, for which they hold rights, are not sent to Internet Archive.” Paula Morris’s response: “If the National Library really thinks writers can ‘opt out’, they are either naive or cynical.”

ReadingRoom also sought comment from Fergus Barrowman, publisher at Victoria University Press. He said, “I’m honestly shocked the National Library would get into bed with the Internet Archive while that outfit, for all of its virtuous activities, is pirating books under the made-up excuse of ‘controlled digital lending’, which is not accepted by author and publisher organisations and has not been tested in courts.”

And this, from Sam Elworthy, publisher at Auckland University Press: “By partnering with Internet Archive, to steal our stuff and give it away for free, New Zealand’s national library is giving a big two fingers to authors and publishers.”

Panz has urgently requested a meeting with Internal Affairs Minister Jan Tinetti. No, I’ve never heard of her, either. Whoever she is, she hasn’t responded to Panz. Cosslett: “We have been met with silence.”

It takes a lot for Panz to jump up and down. You never usually hear anything from them and likewise another literary quango, the New Zealand Society of Authors (NZSA), also go about their business without anyone noticing they exist. But the NZSA, too, is outraged with the National Library’s decision, and doesn’t have a good word to say about Internet Archive. As follows are some bad words.

“The Internet Archive’s online distribution of copyright books is illegal,” said its chief executive Jenny Nagle. “American colleagues have described what the Internet Archive is doing as ‘no different than heaving a brick through a grocery store window and handing out the food – and then congratulating yourself for providing a public service’.”

Graeme Cossett went so far as to issue a vague and really quite unspecified threat to the National Library. “Authors and publishers will be reviewing all their current relationships with National Library in light of this total disregard for New Zealand books and creativity.”

Gee, really? It was put to Fergus Barrowman, who replied, “I don’t know yet. I’ve had other things to think about, and I suppose I’m still hoping it won’t come to that.” Sam Elworthy was a bit more forceful: “Our key interaction with National Library is sending them legal deposit copies of all new print books and ebooks. We’ll certainly be reviewing that at AUP.”

Where is the minister – Jan something or other – in all of this? Nicola Legat, publisher at Massey University Press, told ReadingRoom: “I think it’s really remarkable, and disappointing, that the minister did not make a speedy response.”

Dunedin author Philip Temple was emphatic in his view: “The minister responsible for National Library does not want to know.” He was satiric about the Internet Archive: “We are going to give them [the 600,000 books] to the great library in the sky, the mighty Internet Archive that will secure the texts forever. But will they? Billionaire Brewster Kahle [the founder of Internet Archive] is already circulating books online without asking authors, books by such as our Witi and Janet.

“But it’s all for a good cause and Brewster’s all right because he can sell the actual books he has been given gratis from such as our National Library through his online secondhand bookstore. Let them eat Ka(h)le.”

Another offer was made to the National Library to take its unwanted 600,000 books: from Warwick Jordan, the enterprising owner of second-hand bookstore Hard To Find. He told ReadingRoom, “We actually made a formal offer to the National Library to purchase all of the books. Our offer included purchasing the books, packing them and transporting them to Auckland where they would be put online and available to buy.

“In that scenario the books stayed in New Zealand and the library actually got money for the books and saved the cost of packing and shipping them (all together a substantial windfall for the taxpayer). Instead the National Library is shipping them all to the Philippines for the poverty-line labour cost. Ironic that this is being signed off on by a Labour Government.

“But frankly once they leave New Zealand who really knows where they will end up. It all sounds very PC but I’m not buying it. Regardless, the actual physical books will be lost to New Zealand forever. Why couldn’t they have been shipped back here after digitisation and I could then buy them and make them available to everyone? Probably because many if not all of them will end up in Philippines landfill.”

Graeme Cossett at Panz hopes the whole thing will be called off. “We ask that the Minister, the Department of Internal Affairs, and the National Librarian withdraw from this risky partnership with the Internet Archive and sit down with all parties that make up New Zealand’s literary community to secure a solution that is both legal and ethical. We would gladly contribute to such a process.

“It is not too late. The books have not left New Zealand, and the New Zealand government has a window of opportunity to intervene.”

Over to the minister, Jan thingamajig.

Steve Braunias is the literary editor of Newsroom's books section ReadingRoom, a noted writer at the NZ Herald, and the author of 10 books.

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